The Clinchfield 100 in Erwin on Wednesday. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
ERWIN — For the first time in more than 30 years, the Clinchfield 100 pulled into the station in Erwin and folks were out early Wednesday to get a look at the more than 100-year-old railcar.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of people that have come by and said they never thought they’d see it again that used to work on the car,” said Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum President Mike Tilley.
One person who didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get a glimpse of the recently renovated railcar was Wilbur Craft Sr., who worked for the railroad from 1945 to 1988. Craft is quite familiar with Car 100. While he was general manager of the Clinchfield Railroad, T.D. Moore used the Clinchfield 100 to carry people to important locations such as Elkhorn City, Ky., and Spartanburg, S.C. It was Craft’s job to ride in the car as it was pulled from South Carolina back into Erwin by Train 97.
“It’s great to see it back on this property,” Craft said.
The Clinchfield 100, also known as Car 100, was on display in Erwin on Wednesday for one day only as part of the CSX Transportation Annual Health and Safety Fair, marking its first return to the former headquarters of the Clinchfield Railroad since it left in 1983.
The car was built in 1911, when it was constructed for the Atlantic Coast Line. It was initially known as the ACL 985. After around 20 years of serving as a passenger car, the ACL 985 was rebuilt into a full-operating dining car and was renamed the “Orlando.” It operated as a full diner car for the ACL’s main line between Washington, D.C., and Miami until the early 1950s.
Around this time, officials with the Clinchfield Railroad began searching for a new business car to transport company executives, and in 1951, purchased the Orlando from the ACL. The car was brought to Erwin and converted into an officer car. Once work for the conversion was completed, the car was renamed Car 100.
Car 100 had its first test run in August 1953, and its first official run three months later when it began service as the official car on the Clinchfield Santa Train. It would continue in this capacity until 1983, and it was also used by Clinchfield officials on business trips.
After the Family Line System absorbed the Clinchfield Railroad in the 1970s, Car 100 was painted to reflect the system’s company colors. It was later transported to CSX in Jacksonville, Fla., to be evaluated for use as a fleet car, leaving Erwin in 1983.
The car was sold to a private party in Florida in 1985. Around 10 years later, it was moved to the Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway in North Carolina, and it later made its way to the Lancaster & Chester Railroad in Lancaster, S.C.
Members of the Jonesborough-based Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum learned Car 100’s owner was interested in selling, and jumped at the opportunity to acquire the railcar. The purchase was finalized last year, and the railcar had been at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, N.C., since July to undergo restoration to restore the exterior it to its original Clinchfield state.
A computer was used to match the car’s new paint job with original Clinchfield paint found in a hatch leading to its roof. New lettering and striping was added to match the original Car 100.
Car 100 was transported from North Carolina to Jonesborough last week. After its Wednesday display in Erwin, the car will be transported back to Jonesborough, Tilley said.
“In the last two weeks, it’s traveled a little over 450-something miles,” he said.
The only other Clinchfield item possessed by the museum is a boxcar.
“I think it’s great to even have a piece of Clinchfield history that still survives, and to get it back to its home territory, I’m just really happy about that,” historical society member Tony King said.
Tilley said there are plans to restore the car’s interior, but there is no time frame on when this may be finished. Those who showed up to look at Car 100 on Wednesday were not allowed inside due to liability concerns, but Tilley said those interested will soon have a chance to peek inside. The car’s interior will be on display at the historical society’s Jonesborough yard from 9 a.m.-noon May 17.
And the Clinchfield 100’s active days on the rails may not be over. Tilley said the society intends to bring in an Amtrak engineer to study the car’s structure to see if it is mechanically sound enough for high-speed travel — up to 110 mph.
“If we can do that, it will change the whole flow of everything,” Tilley said.
If it is capable of this, Tilley said the car’s interior could be converted into a lounge area. If this possibility is ruled out, Tilley said the interior would be converted back to its original configuration.
“Even if we can’t restore it back to Amtrak, at least we’ve saved it where it will be a piece of Clinchfield history,” he said.